Toddler Sleep

Let’s face it: Not getting enough sleep can lead to a host of other toddler issues—tantrums and meltdowns, crankiness, and a generally disagreeable demeanor. Suffice it to say, sleep is important, maybe paramount, to making a parent's life and a young child’s life easier. When it comes to establishing good sleep habits with your toddler, the earlier parents start, the better.

It will be easier on the whole family if you set ground rules and routines around sleep now, so that you can avoid problems later.

Some parents don't realize that the habits they allow or even encourage can lead to sleep problems. But once these problems have developed, it can be difficult to make changes, though it's not impossible and is certainly worth the effort.

Toddler Sleep Associations

A sleep association is anything that a toddler associates with going to sleep, like a pacifier, a blankie or stuffed animal, rocking, nursing, etc. Children start establishing sleep associations very early in life. If your toddler is used to falling asleep with a bottle or some other item, he will make that association every time it's bedtime until the association is broken or replaced. The same is true of any soothing measures that you offer your child. If you pat your child until he or she falls sleep, rock him to sleep, sleep with him every night, or if he takes a pacifier or must have a specific stuffed animal or blanket, those are sleep associations that you may eventually have to break.

Some sleep associations are healthy and critical to setting up a bedtime routine so that your child's mind and body will be ready for sleep. Parents might give their toddler a warm, soothing bath; brush their teeth; read a story together; turn all the lights down low; sing songs; anything that helps to indicate that a calm, soothing bedtime is approaching.

Other sleep associations can create issues—even if they seem like no big deal at first. If your child has to have a bottle of milk in order to fall asleep, it may seem fine at first, but it later becomes an inconvenience and is unhealthy due to baby bottle cavities that can develop. It can also be a source of extra calories that your toddler doesn't really need. Sleeping in your child’s room may seem like your only option for getting your child to bed, but that probably means you’re not getting a good night’s sleep. Parents should consider whether or not a sleep association is adversely affecting your child's sleep, your own sleep or sanity, or that of another caregiver.

When Is Co-Sleeping Healthy?

Co-sleeping is a hotly debated issue that, for some people, can straddle the line between healthy and unhealthy sleep habits and associations. Plenty of parenting experts argue that when done right, co-sleeping (also known as the family bed) is perfectly safe and healthy.

However, the American Academy of Pediatrics revised its safe sleep recommendations in October 2016, which clearly outline instances that have been shown to increase the risk of SIDS, unintentional death, or injury when sharing a bed with an infant or small child.

An infant should never bed-share with an adult who is a smoker or is impaired due to drug or alcohol use as well as older children and adults who are not a parent. In addition, the AAP advises against co-sleeping on surfaces like waterbeds or with soft blankets and pillows. It's important to be aware of these guidelines for babies and children over the age of 1.   

Even if you’re co-sleeping in a safe environment, co-sleeping may not be the best choice for everyone involved. If your sleep or your partner’s sleep habits are disrupting your child’s, he may not be getting enough sleep while co-sleeping.

A toddler needs up to 13 hours a night and should not be keeping adult hours. If your child regularly goes to bed late and wakes up early (as many adults do) then he's probably not getting enough sleep or is compensating for the loss by falling asleep in the car, at the lunch or dinner table or wherever he can. Keeping a child on an adult sleep schedule because of co-sleeping is not healthy.

More commonly, though, problems with co-sleeping arise because parents started a sleep association (like falling asleep in the child's bed) that they no longer want to be involved in. At first they may have been keeping the child's schedule, but as that became impractical, they kept up the old habit but shifted the bedtime to their own adult bedtime.

Fixing Negative Sleep Associations

Bad news first: Fixing a toddler’s sleep problem is not easy. That said, it's not impossible, and when it's over, your toddler will (hopefully) be a great sleeper and everyone in the family will be well-rested and happy.

First, make sure all of the caregivers in the home are on the same page about your child’s sleep situation. Next, alter your perception of who is in charge of this situation. Parents of toddlers often get stuck in this trap. It seems impossible to control toddlers or to get them to do what we want sometimes—it is your job as the parent to set and maintain boundaries around sleep routines and schedules. We fail our kids when we allow them to do what they want just because they're louder, they cry, or they outlast us.

Finally, make a plan and implement it consistently.

To start, get a good bedtime routine going. Keep the lights low and voices quiet, and allow your toddler to choose a book or two, pajamas, and a stuffed animal. Sometimes giving a child some choices at bedtime helps them feel like they're more in control of the situation.

If you’re struggling to get a toddler to sleep on his own, tell him that he needs to stay in his bed and sleep. Be firm. Once you've set the expectation, say goodnight and leave the room.

If your toddler seems insecure or cries as you are leaving, verbally reassure him that you're just down the hall but that he has to stay in bed. If your toddler gets out of bed, then you must take him and physically put him back in bed. Do this without talking, arguing, or making a big production out of it. If he senses that your voice is going up an octave and you are desperately reassuring him, then he's not going to be hearing your words, but rather your tone, which is one of alarm and stress rather than calm and reassurance.

You might be able to put him back into bed and exit the room, and he will get the point that it's time for sleeping and you mean business. However, your toddler is likely to test you. Keep taking him back, over and over again until he stays.

If the toddler chases you out of the room immediately instead of waiting until you're out of the room to get out of bed, try sitting on the floor or setting up a chair in the room. Be close to the bed (to physically reassure him of your presence and so that you can easily place him back without over exhausting yourself) but do not get in the bed or allow him to sit in your lap or be out of the bed. You also should only tell him one time that you are going to sit right there and that he has to stay in his bed.

Then, do not do any more talking and just wait him out. Do not go to sleep on the floor next to his bed or get into the bed, no matter how tempting it may be. When he's asleep, leave the room.

The first week of this method is going to be the hardest, if done consistently it shouldn't take longer than 2-3 weeks for this new sleep habit to become established. The best part is that after the first week, there will be a steep drop in the amount of time it takes for your child to accept the limit and go to sleep. Each day gets easier after that.

A Word About Crying

The toddler stage is full of emotion. Some days it will feel like you are on a roller coaster ride with all the extremes of emotional response a toddler brings your way. Not all of these responses are reasonable or justified. For example, a half-hour meltdown is not generally warranted simply because you got your toddler's peas too close to his mashed potatoes, but that may be exactly what you get some nights.

This is also not to say that every reaction that your toddler has is groundless. While it may seem unwarranted to us, these feelings are very real for a toddler. Still, as a parent, it is critical to teach our children how to cope with tough emotional situations and come out on the other side better for it.

At bedtime, especially when trying to break a child of an unhealthy sleep association, a child may certainly cry, but know that it is doing him no harm as long as the parent is present, active, and responsive. It may not feel good for the parent, but for a toddler, actions speak louder than words. Your presence nearby as he sleeps is being responsive.

Reinforce this by telling your toddler every night that you are just down the hall. It will be reinforced even if you have to sit with him for a few weeks until he understands and is secure that you mean what you say. He is safe in his room and, deep down, you know this. If he cries, that fact doesn't change.

Your toddler is still safe in his room and you are still nearby.

In order to better help your child cope with the hard task of becoming more independent and learning how to sleep on his own, be sure that you take moments during the day when you are not in the throes of working out a sleep problem to talk about it. Offer your child lots of daytime cuddles and love. Tell him how proud you are of him each time that he takes a step toward sleeping on his own. Remark on his progress and be sure to take the time to listen when he expresses pride in himself. Some toddlers are surprised when they accomplish things that they thought were too hard in the beginning.


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